Keely's Reviews > Selected Stories

Selected Stories by Anton Chekhov
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Jul 18, 07

bookshelves: short-story, reviewed, realism, russian, favorites
Read in October, 2006

There is a vein of dull misery running through much of modern realism. It is not even tragedy, because tragedy requires that the person be suffering as a result of their actions, and that they be emotionally complex enough to understand what is happening to them, and to feel the whole of that pain.

These stories of misery have none of that, they are tales of the ignorant, of the emotionally stunted, who bumble into one stupidity after another, never realizing why or what it means. Is there a certain kind of realism in this? Sure--but fundamentally, it's only half the story.

Sure, we all might feel that way sometimes, if we're depressed, and so we look at the world and say 'it sucks out there, and always will'--and part of it is that we want that to be true, too. We want it to suck, and for us to have predicted it, because that means that none of this is our fault. If things suck, it's because that's how they're meant to be, not because we happened to fuck up.

But the world just isn't that bad. Life isn't that bad, even when we feel like wallowing in it, that's not reality, that's just our own baggage, our own coping. So, for an author to take that kind of nihilism and turn it into a book just ends up feeling silly. It's empty, it's self-centered, and it's not profound. We did Nihilism already, and found better things to supplant it.

But that's what's amazing about Chekhov, because by all rights, that is what his stories should be: these little moments of sad life for these miserable little nobodies who don't know any better. And yet, they're not. They're somehow beautiful and delicate and profound. There's this undefinable Will to Joy in each one that makes it come off as sweet and sympathetic.

And his people are so strange. Each one is a true character, because none of them are just 'types', place-fillers. That's the lesson Chekhov took from Gogol: that describing a man's head as looking like a dented pumpkin feels somehow more real than just saying it was big, and not entirely round, and somewhat over-fleshy. Making someone flat and grey doesn't make them seem miserable, because misery is vivid and colorful and overwhelming--that's what makes it such a damn bother. If it were colorless and bland, it could never roll over a human mind.

Now, I'm just as willing to hate stupid people as anyone--and back in college, I was even more ready to disregard them. Yet Chekhov's stupid little people are impossible to hate, because they seem real. Like everyone, they try to put up a front, but you can see little bits, between the seams, that show you just how vulnerable and desperate they are for something, anything, which brings out that fundamental human thought: "Oh god. Me too."

And yet, not everyone sees it. I know they don't, because one girl asked my professor "Why is Chekhov such a pessimist?" He was utterly confounded by the question, he couldn't understand where it came from, how anyone could come to that conclusion. I mean, here's an author showing you the beautiful soul of another human being, in the midst of whatever turmoil or failed search for meaning, and somehow doing it in the span of a few pages--and you call that pessimism?

But then, Nietzsche was also misunderstood in that way, as was Machiavelli. These weren't men talking about the world as they thought it should be, but the world as they saw it, every day, all around them--and their reaction to that darkness was not to give in, or fold up, but to say 'we can fight our way through this'. Not out of it, perhaps, but definitely through it.

But then, to a certain type of idealist, even admitting that things can be bad, or will be bad, is seen as pessimistic, defeatist. I don't buy that. If I'm fighting, I want to know what I'm up against. I want to know everything about them, because that's how I'm going to win. To me, optimism isn't self-delusion, it isn't being in good spirits when things are going fine--that's too easy, anyone can do that--it's pushing on even when time are hard, even knowing they will probably still be hard tomorrow.

They will be hard tomorrow. But I'll still be here, and Chekhov will still be here, and if that's not enough for you, then you're only in it to get attention, anyways.
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message 1: by Wilcott (last edited Jan 30, 2013 12:00PM) (new)

Wilcott We were talking about narrative voice recently in my Creative Writing lecture, and I mentioned Chekhov as having a cruel one. I agree with you that he wasn't a pessimist, but since he wrote a lot about characters that suffer and were miserable I could you only get the word cruel out of my mouth to describe his voice. I wonder if that was legitimate or not? Care for your opinion.


Keely Actually, I consider him to be a very sympathetic author. I think that he tends to write about pain and difficulty because for him, those elements are fundamentally central to the human experience. I think we tend to come away from his works with a sense of sympathy for those characters--we don't get angry at them and think of them as fools for their misfortunes, as we would if the author were truly cruel and cynical in his approach. I'd argue that Chekhov shows us pain again and again because he thinks of it as inescapable, and in a way, beautiful, because it is so deeply human.


message 3: by Wilcott (new)

Wilcott Keely wrote: " I'd argue that Chekhov shows us pain again and again because he thinks of it as inescapable, and in a way, beautiful, because it is so deeply human. "

I agree; and I guess I thought of the word cruelty because the pain of his characters don't seem to end, though they wish for it to. I guess he thought it unwise to give them their utmost desire, since it never happens as easily or as simply as we want it to--he wanted to show our struggle to find such relief. "Bittersweet spice" summarises him quite perfectly. I think those were the words I was looking for. Thanks.


Keely Yes, definitely bittersweet.


message 5: by Han (new) - rated it 5 stars

Han Asra Make me wonder where Chekhov got his inspiration from beside Gogol? My friend said that both author are at their best when it come to strange characters.


Keely Well, Chekhov was influenced by a number of other Realist and Naturalist authors, such as the big Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and French writers Balzac, Zola, and de Maupassant. Chekhov was also a playwright, so he took inspiration from other playwrights, as well, most notably Norwegian Henrik Ibsen. But yeah, I definitely think his strongest skill as a writer is his deft sense of the inner workings of odd characters.


message 7: by Han (new) - rated it 5 stars

Han Asra It come to me while I'm reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel that many great author fo the past tend to be character driven in nature of their stories. I can't summarized the plot of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel because much of the book are built upon of the characters interaction. So does Chekhov and Gogol, where I never heard about their greatness in writing except for their excellency in delivering strange character. And with strange characters I suppose that their stories must be character driven too.


Keely Yeah, that's true of many great writers, particularly the Realists, since that is what they focused on. Chekhov's a good example, since his plots tend to be all about the interactions between characters, their desires and apprehensions, and all the little moments that make them up. Not something that's easy to briefly summarize, as you say.


message 9: by Han (new) - rated it 5 stars

Han Asra Well, that makes me wonder if there any classics that is plot driven? From contemporary author, those I can think of being very plot driven is China Mieville, and he is in my opinion ery excellent in doing that. Perhaps Moby-Dick could be counted as one?


Keely Well, Moby Dick is actaully a very winding, experimental work, but there is definitely a clear plot around which it is centered, so that works. I think there are quite a few plot-driven classics, particularly those that focus on a specific character's journey instead of the interaction of numerous characters. Of course, mysteries like Sherlock Holmes tend to be plot-driven, but then, so were the old Greek tragic plays, and Epics like The Aeneid, The Odyssey, or even Paradise Lost and Dante's Inferno--books that are about events and locations, about progressing to some particular place and time.

But yeah, these days, what we think of as 'literary works' tend to be much more concerned with the particulars of character psychology as people go about their lives.


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